The Big Steep

The only thing slick about Arizona Snowbowl is the snow

Fairfield shut down the weekend sky rides on the chair lift and spent more than $50,000 to repair the damage.

"There was a cloud hanging over the ski area for a year and a half," says Murray. "Who was it, and was it going to happen again?"

Davis was implicated in the Snowbowl vandalism after he and three accomplices were caught trying to cut power lines into a Central Arizona Project facility as a dress rehearsal for a similar attack on the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. Davis' trial in 1991 (which New Times covered in a 13-part series) ludicrously focused on whether he could have brought on a nuclear meltdown at the plant--assuming he ever got to it. He'd also vandalized a northern Arizona uranium mine. And because he had managed to get a $500 donation from the eco-prankster group Earth First!, the government dramatically dragged Earth First! founder Dave Foreman into the case. Davis pleaded down to committing $5,000 worth of vandalism and served four years in prison. Foreman was sentenced to probation.

At about the same time, Fairfield was filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and among its assets was the Snowbowl, which, until then, had never really made money for anyone. Fairfield sold the ski area for the same figure it'd bought it for, $4 million.

When Eric Borowsky's group took ownership in 1992, it kept the resort's management team intact, and set about stamping out the last embers of the political and environmental battles that had raged under the previous owners.

Borowsky met with the Indian tribes face to face instead of lawyer to lawyer, and as a goodwill gesture began sending the timber cut during trail widening to Hopi to be used as vigas on that wood-scarce reservation.

"The new ownership that Eric represents has been very positive for the tribe and he works with the tribe," says Leigh Jenkins of the Hopi cultural preservation office.

And neither the Forest Service nor the Sierra Club can find fault in his operations. The trail widening allowed under the resort's operating permit, however, was held up for two summers, an unexpected victim of the logging injunction ordered by federal court judge Carl Muecke on behalf of the Mexican spotted owl.

Locals have questioned the resort's right to close its parking lots to nonskiers on busy weekends, a policy upheld by the Forest Service. But other than that, Arizona Snowbowl is sitting quietly on the mountain.

Of course, the new ownership has not tried to expand.
Yet.
The existing master plan on file with the Forest Service would allow the ski area to develop 76 more acres of trails and install two more lifts, more than will probably be done. Within the next two to five years, after the existing debt is retired, Eric Borowsky's managers intend to build a new lift up to the northernmost boundary to open up intermediate skiing through the trees there.

Testing the Limits
Ropes mark the edges of the ski-area boundaries just beyond the top of the chair lift, like buoy lines just offshore from the beach marking the limits of safe swimming.

Ski patroller B.J. Boyle ducks beneath the rope, just to show how easy it is to slip out of the safety of civilized skiing and into the backcountry.

"My whole reason for learning to ski was to get access to the backcountry," says Boyle.

But not today. The National Weather Service has just issued a severe avalanche warning. Two years ago, on a beautiful day just like this one, two snowboarders ventured out of bounds from this very spot, traversed a mile or so at treeline and then dropped into perfect untracked snow in one avalanche chute, sucked like insects into a Venus'-flytrap. For all its apparent calm, the snowpack was hanging tenuously, waiting for the slice of their boards to let go tons of snow. One of the shredders was swept to his death.

In the ski-patrol shack atop the Agassiz chair lift is a photograph of the fatal avalanche: snow boulders, 20-inch diameter trees snapped off and piled 20 feet high.

Out-of-bounds avalanche casualties are not uncommon in the Rockies and in Europe, but this was the first avalanche death in Snowbowl's 60-year history, and though it occurred well beyond the ski-area boundaries, the sheriff's office requested help from the Snowbowl ski patrols in the attempted rescue.

The new generation of out-of-bounders, weaned on designer ski areas, knows little about snow conditions. Many of them are snowboarders (who follow an anti-authoritarian god) and since snowboards are much easier to handle than skis in the crust and crud of ungroomed snow, they allow more inexperienced people out into the great beyond.

Ten years ago, as Snowbowl general manager J.R. Murray points out, fewer people ventured into the backcountry, "and they asked better questions."

Steve Jenner, a Forest Service snow ranger, adds, "Now we're getting 1,000 people in a season who know nothing about skiing in the backcountry."

They don't know well enough to bring food and water and matches and avalanche transceivers. Mountains, like the sea, make their own weather, roiling up from apparent calm, and like the sea, have to be dealt with cautiously and patiently.

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